The Ultimate Guide to Making Highlighter Look Totally Natural


While sleep, hydration, and a solid skin care regimen are essential for radiant skin, nailing Jennifer Lopez-level glow requires enlisting a few extra tools to make your own light. Highlighter, for one, has gained major beauty buzz over the past few years, and for good reason: It can be a fast track to radiant skin. “I find most women over 35 want a luminous glow more than just about anything else,” says Shawnelle Prestidge, Jane Fonda’s go-to makeup artist. “For those who haven’t considered it, highlighter could help you to look and feel ever more radiant and youthful.”  

With so many formulas, shades and finishes to choose from, it’s easy to dismiss highlighters as a fad made for Instagram, but the combination of the right product and application technique can impart an oh-so-subtle glow that can make even fatigued skin appear well-rested. Below, Prestidge and other makeup artists weigh in on how to hop aboard the highlighting trend to enhance — not distract from — your natural beauty.

Formula Counts

When choosing a highlighter to create the most believably natural radiance for daytime wear, the pros generally pass on glittery powder-based formulas and choose pearlier, luminous ones instead.

Carl Ray, who has worked with former first lady Michelle Obama, opts for creamy liquid highlighters such as MAC Cosmetics’s iconic moisturizing Strobe Cream ($34). “It blends seamlessly for the appearance of a fresh, healthy complexion,” he explains.

For highlighter newbies, Prestidge also recommends cream-based formulas, which impart a buildable sheen and are therefore easiest to work with. Her picks: Ulta’s Lip + Cheek Color Stick ($10) or RMS Beauty’s Living Luminizer ($38). Both provide a luminous (not shimmery) finish.

Get Shade-Savvy

Similar to finding the most flattering lipstick shades for your skin tone, finding the most complementary highlighter color takes a bit of trial and error. As a rule of thumb, Ray suggests using a highlighter two shades lighter than your skin tone, which will ensure your features really pop. A lighter highlight also creates a flattering contrast against bronzer. Prestidge advises trying a few different shades on before committing. (In other words, highlighter might be one of those things you probably don’t want to buy online!) Generally speaking, coppery colors such as Chanel Soleil Tan De Chanel Sheer Illuminating Fluid ($48) complement warmer skin tones, while champagne hues such as Becca Shimmering Skin Perfector®Liquid Highlighter in Moonstone ($41) brighten cooler complexions.

Curb Your Enthusiasm

“Highlighters can be tricky and can make skin look more mature than it actually is,” warns Ray. “If it’s too shimmery or frosted it can amplify your skin’s texture and lines; choose a cream and be subtle with your application.” He recommends using a very light touch to apply product only on the spots where light would naturally hit. “Dab along the top of cheekbones, along the brow bone, around the temple, down the center and tip of nose, and a smidge on the cupid's bow,” Ray advises. For a natural finish, he primes skin with moisturizer and applies liquid highlighter using a combination of his fingers and a makeup sponge (try a beautyblender®) to the highest points of the face.

Prestidge also abides by the notion that a little goes a long way when it comes to highlighter; she suggests “introducing a little bit [of product] at a time” and building gradually to create a subtle radiance. “Applying in stages is always the best way to control the product,” she says. “If using a cream, warm a bit up between your fingers first, and dab on the back of one hand (to use as a palette) and then work your way up, starting from the top of the cheekbone. Repeat until you reach your desired glow.”

If you do choose to use powder, the same light handed principles still apply. Prestidge uses a small-headed kabuki brush (try Sigma Beauty’s F80 Flat KabukiTM Brush, $25) to pick up a tiny amount of product, taps the brush, and whisks off excess product off on a tissue — all before the brush even touches the face. Similarly, Ray advises using a fan brush with powders to deposit a subtle wash of highlight rather than an intense strobe.

So, next time you want to literally light up a room, heed these tips to really get things glowing.

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